Review for Rich and Famous and Tragic Hero
When it comes to my genres of preference, movies about organised crime are my least watched. I still haven’t seen The Godfather movies, and at this juncture, I doubt I ever will, given the whole world of cinema I have yet to watch in other genres that I do love. These films effectively glorify the bad guy, extolling an ‘honour among thieves’ that in the real world is just wishful thinking. So when Eureka sent me the check discs for Rich & Famous, and Tragic Hero, my first instinct was to put them in the circular file; despite the positive track record I’ve had reviewing unsolicited discs from Eureka Entertainment. But then I read the blurb, Golden Harvest films from 1987, starring Chow Yun Fat and Andy Lau, a two film saga shot back to back, “influenced by The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America”... suddenly I was in the mood to watch a mafia movie, or rather a Triad movie. Originally according to the audio commentary, Tragic Hero was released to cinemas before its prequel, Rich and Famous, but Eureka are presenting the films in narrative order in this set. I’ll watch them that way too.
Disc 1: Rich & Famous
It wasn’t an easy time in Hong Kong in the 1950s, especially for the refugees from newly Communist mainland China who arrived before the borders were closed. When Kwok’s father dies, he’s adopted by a family, and raised as a brother to Yung, and sister Wai-chu. But their father has a hard time making ends meet, and the siblings have to skirt the grey areas of the underworld to survive. When Yung tries forging a betting ticket, it kicks off a series of events that bring the two brothers and their sister into the orbit of mob boss Brother Chai. As the years pass, the honourable and loyal Kwok moves swiftly up the ranks of the organisation, but at the same time, ambition and jealousy darken the heart of Yung. A conflict with a rival gang, forces the brothers to choose sides.
Disc 2: Tragic Hero
After the horrific events at the wedding, Kwok quit the business and moved to Malacca, where he got married to a local girl and opened a restaurant, adopting a bunch of kids in the process. And while we might have seen Yung being carted away in handcuffs, the charges obviously didn’t stick, as by the eighties, he’s a mob boss in his own right, making plenty of moves. He still has vengeance in his heart for Brother Chai, who like all the veteran Triad leaders, has been making more and more money as a legitimate businessman than through crime. For Yung, that’s just a sign of weakness.
Rich & Famous gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on the disc. You have the choice between PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese (Restored Audio), Cantonese (Original Theatrical Audio, and English dub, with optional English subtitles. It’s a solid transfer, clear and sharp with consistent colours. Detail levels are good, and there is an organic but discreet level of film grain. I saw no signs of age or print damage. The restored Cantonese audio is the way to go here, but while the dialogue is clear, and free of high frequency distortion, the rather cheesy music soundtrack does seem afflicted by wow and flutter distortion... unless they actually wanted it to sound that way. The dialogue is clear, and the subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos.
Just like Rich & Famous, Tragic Hero gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on the disc and you have the choice between PCM 2.0 Mono Cantonese (Restored Audio), Cantonese (Original Theatrical Audio, and English dub, with optional English subtitles. The results are quite similar when it comes to clarity and audio, although this time I realised why the soundtrack sounds so cheesy. It’s the kind of MIDI music that my 486 would pump out of some classic, and some not so classic PC games.
Rich & Famous boots swiftly to a static menu, and you’ll find the following extras on the disc.
Audio commentary covering both films with Frank Djeng
Dub Masters Documentary (21:19)
Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:56)
English Export Trailer (3:59)
Tragic Hero too gets a static menu with the following extras; no commentary this time.
Heroes and Villains Johnny Mak Style: Interview with Manfred Wang (22:03)
A Race For the Heroes: Interview with Michael Mak (32:46)
Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (4:17)
English Export Trailer (3:51)
The first run release of the collection will come with a 20-page booklet on the films with writing from James Oliver.
I don’t know whether to take this collection as one movie across two discs, or to treat them as separate films. After all, if Tragic Hero was released first, and the prequel came a few months after, then I have to accept the idea that people actually went to see Rich & Famous inspired by the experience of Tragic Hero. I find that hard to buy. But on the other hand, seeing Tragic Hero as the conclusion to the story kicked off in Rich & Famous; it flows naturally to be sure, but that’s not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Personally, I found Rich & Famous to be bearable at best, while Tragic Hero was fundamentally stupid. In combination, both films were an unpleasant waste of time, time that I would like back please.
Of the two, Rich & Famous is the better film, comparatively speaking. It has something of a story to it, a degree of progression, although continuity isn’t too hot when it comes to the period drama aspect of it. It begins in the fifties, and plays out in the early seventies, but characters don’t particularly age, and costumes and production designs seem anachronistic at best.
It is an organised crime drama, with the rivalry of gangs, and the twisted relationship between two brothers playing out in front of that. The blurb mentions inspirations like The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America, and you might add films like Scarface to that. But it’s as if the creators of this duology watched those films and just saw the surface, men in sharp suits (with massive shoulder pads) with slicked back hair, plenty of hookers and blow, cigars and booze, and lots of guns. They didn’t bother with the depth that goes with character and story development. Rich & Famous is all surface, wafer thin and ephemeral. The story is nothing special, and the characters are set in stone at the start of the film, and remain that way through its runtime. Chai is a good guy in bad clothing, Kwok is loyal to a fault, and Yung is jealous of everything.
But Rich & Famous is a paragon of Oscar winning excellence compared to Tragic Hero. This 96 minute drone of a film is all about Yung’s revenge, nothing else. We’re in the eighties at this point in the story, which look identical to the seventies of the previous film. No one addresses the big plot hole, where Yung had just been arrested for murder at the end of the first film, but shows up here doing pretty damn well for himself. The creators only had two questions. Can we make the bad guy more evil? No, more evil than that? Still more evil... We haven’t reached max evil yet. And for the gunfight sequences... Can we put more squibs on the actor? No, more squibs than that? Still more squibs...
I can’t take seriously, or enjoy a villain so single-minded and monotonous in their villainy. The best bad guys know how to have fun with the roles, and this is no Alan Rickman. And when it comes to responding to that evil... I’ve seen this approach in some classic kung fu movies, in that the villains are completely black, and the heroes positively saintly in their purity and sacrifice. Through the film the villain will attack the hero, their friends, their loved ones, destroying everything piece by piece, and the hero will always turn the other cheek, be peaceful, conciliatory even. Only when they have absolutely nothing left, will they finally snap and fight back.
I couldn’t take that seriously in a period kung-fu movie, two steps removed from reality to begin with; in a contemporary crime drama, it’s ridiculous. I want to slap the protagonist. “What’s the point of fighting back at this juncture? You’ve lost it all, and there’s nothing to gain now. Put the gun to your own head and you’ll at least save money on bullets, and the trauma counselling you’ll need going forward.” Apparently Pyrrhic victories are a thing in Hong Kong cinema, but when it comes to vicarious entertainment, and despite the last five minutes of the film wanting to be Commando, there’s no joy to be had here.
Normally I’d be willing to give even the poorest of films a second chance. I’ll put them into my rewatch pile, hoping that in five or ten years when I get around to watching them again, I might find some redeeming value. But I have no intention of watching Rich & Famous or Tragic Hero again. Life’s just too short.
Rich & Famous/Tragic Hero is available direct from Eureka Video, from Terracotta, and from mainstream retailers.